Trying Not To Notice
5.25 × 7.75 inches
1 color offset
Will Dinski's new book is one of his best. One of Dinski's go-to themes has been the ways in which people's lives become intertwined in unexpected and frequently toxic ways. In Trying Not To Notice, each of its four chapters are told from the point of view of one of four principal characters: a struggling stand-up comedian named John, his grizzled veteran comic friend Kyle; John's wife Amanda, who is unable to use her legs; and John's co-worker Summer. At first, it's not clear who's leading the narrative with each chapter title; for example, the first chapter is "My friend Kyle has it all figured out." It takes a couple of pages before it's clear that while the title refers to John's relationship with Kyle, it's all from Kyle's point of view.
Dinski's art has always relied on the elaboration of basic shapes to create his characters. For example, Kyle's head is essentially an upside-down triangle, while John has a classic square jaw. The simplicity of the characters is juxtaposed against Dinski's wildly inventive page compositions that vary from page to page. There are three panel pages, splash pages, seven panel pages, pages where the panels are in small circles and other techniques designed to keep the reader off-balance. As the story proceeds and gets continuously stranger, Dinski makes sure that the reader is ready for anything. The central brilliance of the book is that Dinski builds up a narrative where it seems like all of the central characters are trapped in situations that make them unhappy, with little to no hope of things changing, but Dinski reverses those expectations in unexpected ways while making the reader ask if things really are for the better.
For example, we learn from Kyle that John is a nice guy and terrible comedian who has been trying to become a successful stand-up for quite some time. Kyle tolerates John's presence and gives him meaningless advice as he badgers him into buying drinks for everyone since he has a day job. Meanwhile, we learn that Kyle is depressed because his career is stuck in neutral and he can't even get laid. There is a moment in the narrative, when Kyle is too drunk to go on and the ever-sober John has informed his friends that he's completely re-worked his set, where John takes his place and absolutely murders the room. It's an unexpected reversal of fortune that eventually helps Kyle as he finally get a girlfriend as well, as John becomes the proverbial rising tide (or in this case, a tsunami) that lifts all boats. Beneath his blank expression and lack of guile lies raw, naked ambition.
We see that start to play out in the next chapter, "My co-worker Summer has a bright future". The essential narrative of John is that a large part of his success is finding the right people to associate with, taking advantage of those relationships but also rewarding those who helped him. In the case of Summer, she assisted John with fixing the books of a Hollywood producer but then later lost her job and was embarrassingly escorted out of the building by her boss. Her reversal of fortune came when she was brought into a meeting by John with the producer, who was so attractive that Dinski drew him as having an entirely blank face. In other words, whatever one's physical ideal might be, the reader could simply imagine it. In gratitude for her help but also as a way to demonstrate his ability to get anything he wanted (including walking up to her and kissing her), he bought the firm that fired her and installed her as the new boss.
The story gets stranger in "My wife, Amanda, can do anything". There's a sense where the chapter titles are less descriptive than predictive, as her job as a photographer for digital advertisers starts to give her frightening amounts of power. After witnessing a man hitting his dog, she posted photos to an animal rights group's message board and gave out his information, which led to him being badly beaten. She was witness, judge and essentially the executioner. As her husband gets more and more famous, she finds herself paranoid about his activities and farther away from him than ever. She can do anything, despite her disabled condition, but that doesn't mean that she should.
We finally see the world through John's eyes in "My life is just the way I want", as he looks at himself in the mirror and sees a sculpted body when his average frame is reality, yet everything he writes on his to-do list winds up becoming true thanks to his relentless belief, cultivation and relationship and ruthlessness in seizing advantages. Now a big enough star that he needs to go out in public in sunglasses, he meets Summer for lunch. She has transformed from someone who said that she was more than just her job in a merciless shark who physically threatens a man in public and crushes his cell phone as she's accompanied by a phalanx of accounting cronies. He buys yet another chair for Amanda from the woman she thought he was cheating on her with, but he was entirely pure of heart despite her paranoia. He and Kyle share some ecstatic moments as John tries out new material at his old club. John and the producer toss around ideas, with a money-making super-hero role being proffered.
There's a moment at the end where his reach exceeded his grasp and his fantasy of his wife walking with him on to his set was wiped out when she was left at the bottom of a flight of stairs. For just a moment, we see the anger, worry and hostility of the people around him, until he changes his outlook (and thus, theirs as well) back to all-sunny, all the time. His wife disappeared in that scenario, but it was a matter of recalibrating the way he wanted his life rather than actually solving a problem or engaging in a conflict in any way. The fact that this chapter is silent is no accident, because John in reality is a terrible communicator, and the way he looks at the world is that he's "trying not to notice" the things that bother him. What's remarkable is how doing this enabled him to remake the world in his image like Rupert Pupkin from King of Comedy. Illusions and lies, if you can get enough people to believe in them, can become a new form of consensus reality. What Dinski suggests is that the further he went in propagating his new version of reality, the more warped it made those closest to him, though he would never see them as anything less than completely happy because he was completely happy. It's a tricky, disturbing narrative that Dinski loads with details that tell the story if one is willing to look closely enough.